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Nutrition Smarts

Get the skinny on organic foods

Nowadays when you're grocery shopping, the dilemma may not be whether to buy broccoli or spinach but whether to choose organic broccoli or conventionally grown. What do you get when you buy organic? Here's a guide:

  • To earn the name organic, fruits and vegetables have to be grown in soil that hasn't been treated with toxic chemicals — like synthetic pesticides or fungicides — for at least three years.
  • Organic dairy products and organic meat come from animals that have been raised without hormones or antibiotics and fed only organic feed.
  • There is no such thing as "pesticide-free." Organic crops are exposed to agricultural chemicals that are already in the environment in rain and in groundwater. But organic produce is "grown without pesticides." Farmers rely on non-chemical practices like rotating crops between fields to stump pests and improve soil fertility as well as natural pesticides such as soap or botanical compounds.
  • When you're buying organic, the key is to make sure the blueberries, milk or tortilla chips you put in your cart are labeled "certified organic." That means the producer has been examined by an outside agency to ensure organic authenticity.
  • "Consumers really need to keep in mind that they should look for products that say they've been certified organic," explains Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association. "That way they know the producer has opened its doors and had its facility inspected to ensure that they're using methods allowed in organic production." It also guarantees that the ingredients in food products like ice cream or tomato sauce are 95 percent organic.
  • "Free-range" is another buzzword. It means the farm animals have access to the outdoors. All organic animals are free-range, but free-range doesn't necessarily mean organic. Again, look for the certified organic stamp.
  • "Natural" usually means that the food contains few or no additives such as preservatives or coloring, but there aren't any standards (FDA defines natural as "minimally processed") so take it with a grain of salt.
  • You may also see "no genetically engineered ingredients" stamped on some of the organic food you buy. That label distinguishes it from a growing number of genetically modified products. Consumer and food groups want to make these labels mandatory.
  • Non-organic foods have the same nutritional value as organic foods. But many who buy organic do so not only because it's "earth friendly" but because of taste.

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